Radiohead talk about their new video
By JOHN SAKAMOTO Executive producer, Jam! Showbiz Monday, June 2, 1997
TORONTO -- As odd as it may seem, a disparate pair of
famous Canadians ended up influencing the sound and substance
of Radiohead's astonishing new album, OK Computer.
How disparate? Try Alanis Morissette and Noam Chomsky.
"We opened 12 shows for Alanis last August," frontman Thom
Yorke is explaining in a Toronto hotel room, where he and
guitarist Jonny Greenwood are holding court during a three-day
media blitz Monday, a few hours before playing a sold-out club
show at the Opera House.
"I think the fact that, here we were standing in front of 10,000
people in a shed (industry parlance for "outdoor amphitheatre")
who really weren't that interested in what we were doing, forced
us to do a lot of tidying up of the songs really, really fast," says
Yorke, whose friendly manner belies reports out of the U.K.
about his supposed surliness.
"I know it sounds stupid, but there was something about playing
in really, really huge, sterile concrete structures that was really
important to the songs. Because a lot of the songs needed to
sound quite big and messy and like they were bouncing off walls.
"When we went back into the studio, we were actually trying to
create the sound of a shed soundcheck, or a big baseball stadium
thing, without sounding like bloody Def Leppard or anything. Just
the fact that you have this trashy, volatile thing going on around
you, which we discovered was really important to the way we did
Thos songs comprise Radiohead's third, and best, album, the
ambivalently titled OK Computer, which rolls into stores in
Canada on June 17, a full two weeks before our American
cousins will be able to buy it.
Prior to that, the band has just released the lead single and video,
"Paranoid Android," a complex six-and-a-half-minute suite that is
intended to show the world that it's okay to laugh during a
"Absolutely, you're supposed to," says Yorke. "I do. I mean, the
title was chosen as a joke. It was like, 'Oh, I'm so depressed.'
And I just thought, that's great. That's how people would LIKE
me to be. And that was the end of writing about anything personal
in the song. The rest of the song is not personal at all."
Try telling that to the British music press, which has seized upon
one couplet in particular -- "When I am king, you will be first
against the wall/With your opinions, which are of no consequence
at all" -- as being a slam at, well, the British music press.
"Again, that's just a joke," says a mildly exasperated Yorke. " It's
actually the other way around -- it's actually MY opinion that is of
no consequence at all.
"When it came time to make the video for that song, we had lots
of people saying, 'Yeah, great, we can have another video like
"Street Spirit" (from 1995's The Bends), all moody and black and
dark. Well, no. We had really good fun doing this song, so the
video should make you laugh. I mean, it should be sick, too. The
whole thing about the lyrics is that they're very twisted, but
because of the way we played it, it permitted me to write
something I wouldn't normally write: humor."
In typical Radiohead fashion, the video -- which should be added
to MuchMusic's regular rotation this week -- doesn't feature the
band at all. Instead, it is the work of demented Swedish director
Magnus Carlsson, who came up with a fully animated cartoon
based around Robin and Benji, a pair of comic-strip characters
popular in the U.K. The enigmatic plot has something to do with a
sweaty diplomat, an alien, several topless mermaids, and a lot of
"When we did it, we deliberately didn't send Magnus the lyrics,"
says Yorke, "because we didn't want it to be too literal. So what
he did was he sat in his garden one Sunday with the song playing
very loud, continuously, all day long, and he just wrote down the
pictures that came into his head."
The character of Robin, observes Jonny Greenwood, is "quite an
affectionate one, quite vulnerable."
Yorke agrees. "Robin is quite the vulnerable character, but he's
also violently cynical and quite tough and would always get up
again. And the rest of the video is really about the violence
around him, which is exactly like the song. Not the same specific
violence as in the lyrics, but everything going on around him is
deeply troubling and violent, but he's just drinking himself into
oblivion. He's there, but he's not there. That's why it works. And
that's why it does my head in every time I see it."
Given the video's topless mermaids -- not to mention one scene in
which a character accidentally slices off his arms and legs -- has
the band run into any trouble with censorship?
"Well, MTV Europe ran it for two weeks uncensored because
their censor was off ill," says Yorke, laughing. "This one woman
was ill and she didn't know about the video, so they just put it on
anyway, which was great. Funny, most people object to the
nipples but not the guy chopping his limbs off."
Yorke says that MTV is airing "Paranoid Android," but blurring
the image every time you see a nipple. "THEY can use sex to sell
everything else, but they can't put it in pop videos," he smirks.
"Yeah," says Greenwood, "they'd rather have 13 bikini-clad
babes grinding away on a beach."
As for the new album's cryptic title, OK Computer started out as
a song title.
"Song titles usually come first with us, followed by music and
lyrics," says Greenwood. "It was a very bad song but a good title
that hung around and started attaching itself and creating all these
weird resonances with what we were trying to do."
"We did this promo trip recently to Japan," says Yorke. "And on
the last day, we were in a record shop and this one kid shouted at
the top of his voice, 'OK COMPUTER!', really, really loud. Then
he had 500 people chant it all at once after the count of three. I
got it on tape. It sounds amazing.
"It reminds me of when Coca-Cola did 'I'd like to teach the world
to sing,' that amazing advert in '70. It completely did my head in
as a kid. The idea of every race anad every nation drinking this
soft drink. Anyway, as well as all that, a lot of people have picked
up on fact that it's actually a really resigned, terrified phrase.
"It's both at the same time," says Yorke, pausing. "Which is really
Which brings us, finally, to the Noam Chomsky connection.
Seems Mr. Yorke has been ploughing through the collected works
on the brilliant media critic, especially the classic text,
One of OK Computer's most powerful songs, "Electioneering,"
reflects Chomsky's influence on Yorke's thinking.
"Like a lot of songs I write, it came from two places at once," he
"I had this phase I went through on an American tour where we
just seemed to be shaking hands all the time, and I was getting a
bit sick of it and upset by it. So I came up with this running joke
with myself, where I used to shake people's hands and say, 'I
trust I can rely on your vote.' They'd go hahaha and look at me
like I was a nutcase. But the phrase sort of carried on. It was like
"As well as that, I had been reading a lot of Chomsky, and I had
that feeling when you read Chomsky that you want to get out and
do something and realize, in fact, that you're impotent."
In the end, after writing pages and pages of words about the third
world and wars and world politics, Yorke thought of Chomsky's
writings and ended up boiling it all down to just one phrase: "Cattle
prods and the IMF" (International Monetary Fund, a global
financial monitoring agency).
"There's no other way to say it, really."
In the meantime, look for Radiohead to return to Canada in
August. They're also teaming up with influential British band
Massive Attack, who will likely end up remixing the
claustrophobic track "Climbing Up The Walls" for future release
as a single.